Lots wrong with this novel – I might do a video soon elaborating on my thoughts about this but for now I’ll just leave these random thoughts.
The main problem is with the narrator, DeLillo has rarely if ever been capable of creating a memorable character, or a particularly interesting narrator, and what makes Underworld a cumbersome bore for me is the central character(s), and I agree with Martin Amis (of all people) that Underworld’s strengths are in its beginning and end passages, the rest is forgettable and overcooked and it’s little wonder that people rarely have much to say about the main chunk of that book. Obviously literary fiction isn’t about creating memorable characters but McElroy, Gass, and Hawkes and more recently Vanessa Place all manage to give their subjects a compelling voice, which accentuates the ideas of the novel and furthers them as lasting works of art, Zero K with its heavy ideas was crying out for this but in the end it added up to little more than a routine tour through transhumanism and never really progressed beyond TED talk levels of depth.
That’s not to say there aren’t glimmers of something deeper, there’s little bits on Heidegger and DeLillo’s own mini version of McElroy’s Plus half way through – there’s a decent novel in here trying to get out but it’s hidden behind DeLillo riffing for the umpteenth time about the New York bloody skyline and I feel the subject kind of overwhelmed him and he got caught up in conceptualised oddities instead, like the architecture of the underground facility. DeLillo edifying the everyday was good 20 years ago but it’s not interesting now and you feel a certain limpness in the prose, as if DeLillo found these sentences in the back of a draw somewhere, even he’s not convinced by them or what they’re doing in this novel. You get the feeling that the novel and maybe even DeLillo’s talent (or lack of in this novel) can’t really sustain the vast ideas he’s dealing with, and this becomes explicit about halfway through when DeLillo abandons the underground facility and retreats to safety and back to New York for another aimless riff. He does go back to the facility near the end but you get the feeling it’s merely perfunctory and again he goes to New York for the novel’s final pages.
I really don’t see what the first person narration adds here, if anything it draws things away, he should have done it like Mao II with multiple POV’s, and this book kind of reminds me of Mao II but at least with Mao II he cut it short and got out at just the right time.
A part of me feels DeLillo might even be playing some sort of accidental joke with the narrator as I’m not convinced that he’s even alive to begin with – he’s like one of Eric Packer’s banal underlings, at least in Cosmopolis and with Eric Packer DeLillo realized he had a monster on his hands and abstracted him to the point where his alien form was interesting and the Limo became a kind of spaceship (and this was complimented with the alien world of huge abstract financial movements), here his lack of conviction has created this kind of non-character.
DeLillo seems to even admit the narrator’s weakness just over midway through the novel when the narrator turns down a job and wants to tell the employer that they don’t understand him “not everything, not the part that makes me interesting.” Yeah, I don’t understand the part that makes you interesting either. There’s also a weird confessional air to the phrases some people say to the narrator when they describe him as a “shapeless man” and when he feels “a shiver of anonymity”.